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Tobias Carroll

Altered Skulls, Body Modification, and Visceral Corruption: The Fiction of Jeremy Robert Johnson

On a trip to Portland, Oregon a few years ago, a writer friend of mine recommended that I check out the work of Jeremy Robert Johnson. I dutifully went to Powell’s a day or so later and headed home after having purchased a short novel called Extinction Journals. That book proved to be my introduction to Johnson’s surreal, visceral, and frequently unsettling body of work. One more descriptor, while we’re at it: highly entertaining. Whether he’s writing about bizarre body modification, demonic forces seeking to corrupt the souls of those they encounter, or strange methods of surviving life in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, Johnson brings a pulpy urgency to the page, which blends neatly with the frequently heady concepts that he utilizes in his fiction.

Extinction Journals reads like J.G. Ballard in his 60s-apocalyptic mode (think The Drowned World), spiked with a heady dose of hallucinogens and an irreverent attitude. It’s set after nuclear weapons have devastated the landscape. Its everyman protagonist, Dean, has managed to escape annihilation via a suit that incorporates a legion of cockroaches. (The President attempts a similar trick, albeit with a suit coated in Twinkies. It’s an approach which doesn’t work out quite as well for him.) There’s a surreal logic at work here, and it’s one that carries through as the plot becomes more contorted, involving a character who loses an arm to one set of ants and has it rebuilt by another. Strange body modifications become more prevalent as this short novel heads towards its climax, creating a sense of visceral unease and paving the way for further exploration of this theme in works to come.

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Series: Genre in the Mainstream

Lovecraft’s Depths, Reimagined: Winter Tide by Ruthanna Emrys

On the surface, Ruthanna Emrys’s novel Winter Tide seems to be a part of a greater trend in fantastic and horrific fiction: a work that utilizes the imagery and cosmology of H. P. Lovecraft while critiquing some of his more odious beliefs. Victor LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom is another work that comes to mind that does thing; in a 2000 comic crossing over his series Planetary and The Authority, Warren Ellis featured a brief appearance from Lovecraft that led to the book’s heroes being repelled by his virulent racism. And Emrys’s novel falls firmly into the world of the Cthulhu Mythos: the events of The Shadow Over Innsmouth are part of its DNA, along with nods to some of Lovecraft’s other works. And the book’s cast features a cast of heroes who are far removed from the straight white men at the center of many of Lovecraft’s stories.

But Emrys is doing something subtler here as well: for all that this novel incorporates elements of Lovecraftian horror, the story she’s telling isn’t a fundamentally horrific one. Instead, it’s a kind of supernatural procedural—and one in which Emrys makes the subversive decision to treat figures who might have been deemed monstrous in Lovecraft’s work as the heroes, and the mysterious beings and ancient gods that were the source of so much dread as a means of transcendence.

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Revisiting Lovecraft, in Horror and in Ambiguity

Invoking the legacy of H.P. Lovecraft in fiction is 2017 is no easy task. On the one hand, you have his visionary take on horror, which remains influential to a host of writers; on the other, you have his loathsome racism that’s frequently inseparable from the stories he’s telling. A handful of nods to the Cthulhu Mythos in a story or novel can sometimes feel less like a warm homage and more of an oversight regarding the more noxious aspects of his body of work.

Some of the work that’s followed in Lovecraft’s footsteps hits many of the same terrifying beats, but opts for a very different sort of worldbuilding: expansive cosmic horror, but of a variety that isn’t beholden to a structure of racist or classist beliefs or spurious theories of racial or ethnic superiority. (I wrote about this in greater detail a few years ago.) Others opt for a different tactic: dealing head-on with Lovecraft’s racism while still finding a way to tap into the profoundly unsettling sense of horror and dread that he conveyed in his work. Last year, two of the most memorable cosmic horror books I read represented each camp: John Langan’s The Fisherman in the former, and Victor LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom in the latter.

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Series: Genre in the Mainstream

In the Time of Antoine Volodine: Unlikely Fables, Literary Dystopias, and Strange Futures

The writer who primarily uses the pseudonym Antoine Volodine for his writing falls neatly into the tradition of writers using multiple pen names. (Think Alice B. Sheldon; think Fernando Pessoa, who coined the concept of the literary heteronym.) The result is a hypnotic array of fictional worlds, many of them fantastic or speculative in nature, that link together as part of an even larger fictional universe. It’s a bold project, and one that balances surreal world-building alongside the creation of new and experimental literary traditions that may only exist in the pages of other novels.

Volodine’s 1998 novel Post-Exoticism in 10 Lessons, Lesson 11, translated from French into English by J. T. Mahany, is set in a near future in which an oppressive government has taken over and suppressed various cultural activities. The novel chronicles the members, movements, and works of the literati of this society. One of the writers alluded to here is named Manuela Draeger, one of Volodine’s other heteronyms, and in the years after its publication, a number of stories by Draeger have been published. An omnibus edition containing three of them—In the Time of the Blue Ball, North of the Wolverines, and Our Baby Pelicans—was published in an English translation by Brian Evenson by Dorothy, a Publishing Project in 2011. A note from the publisher provides some context: in the world of Volodine’s stories, Draeger is “a librarian in a post-apocalyptic prison camp who invents stories to tell to the children in the camp.” The stories in this volume make no allusion to that aspect of their creation; instead, they stand on their own, parts of a larger literary project that can also be enjoyed as standalone works.

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Beware the Retrofuture: Elan Mastai and Jack Womack Navigate the Problems of SciFi Nostalgia

What happens when the cost of a gleaming utopia is revealed? Nothing’s quite so narratively disorienting as the moment in which you learn that what you’d previously envisioned as an ideal society turns out to have a harrowing cost for a certain segment of the population. Warren Ellis and Chris Weston’s Ministry of Space is a perfect example of this: it tells the story of an alternate 20th century in which the U.K. took the lead in exploring and colonizing space. The result is visually resplendent: the design of the spacecraft looks simultaneously retro and boldly futuristic. It looks like a better world, a future that never was.

And then, at the very end, there’s a sting, as Ellis and Weston reveal the cost of these advancements, and the downside to a spacefaring nation that never shed its institutional prejudices as it began to reach for the stars. Suddenly those spaceships and orbiting stations looks a lot less inviting; that bold future we never had starts to look like one we were all lucky to avoid.

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The Craft of the Uncanny: Lessons in Storytelling from Percy, Gaiman, and Delany

Every writer creates stories differently, and finding a method that works best for you is an essential part of being a writer. There are plenty of ways to learn about the craft, from workshops to creative writing programs to online courses. Any and all of these can impart a sense of form, offer examples of stories or novels that illustrate particular narrative strengths, and help a writer fortify their own abilities and aesthetics. Another way to explore the craft of storytelling is, of course, to read about it. Over the years and decades, numerous writers have offered their thoughts and advice based on what they’ve learned–and, in some cases, taught.

When factoring in advice that focuses primarily on writing about the speculative, the fantastic, or the uncanny, even more wrinkles develop. But there are a small group of writers who’ve tackled the subject–most recently, Benjamin Percy’s Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction. Percy’s novels have encompassed the realistic and the speculative: his The Wilding explored the legacies of trauma and the nature of violence in realistic terms, while his Red Moon took on similar issues in a world similar to our own where a condition like lycanthropy is widespread across the human population. He’s also in the midst of a run as the writer of DC Comics’ Green Arrow. In other words, Percy’s storytelling chops extend across various media and genres.

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Altered Bodies, Familiar Histories: Kiini Ibura Salaam’s When the World Wounds

The stories featured in Kiini Ibura Salaam’s collection When the World Wounds encompass a variety of styles and approaches to the fantastic and the speculative. Some explore familiar settings and relationships, while one opts for one of the most challenging feats in science fiction: accurately conveying a set of alien perceptions in terms that come off as both lucid and not overly expository.

At times, the tendency of this collection to move from milieu to milieu means that the full scope of Salaam’s work is somewhat obscured; after finishing it, though, the full breadth of Salaam’s range becomes clear. This is a collection in which the most challenging of subjects are taken up, handled deftly, and turned into the stuff of compelling drama.

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Haunted Places, People, and Books: Listening for Ghosts in Fiction and Non-Fiction

“I spent several years traveling the country, listening for ghosts.” So writes Colin Dickey early on in his recent book Ghostland: An American History of Haunted Places. Dickey’s previous books have explored subjects like grave robbing and religious fanaticism before, and Ghostland falls into the same category: deeply entertaining, evoking a powerful sense of location, and juxtaposing (with apologies to John Ford) both legend and fact. Dickey’s book is structured around a series of profiles of different places, each of them haunted: hotels and mansions and jails, each with their own evocative strains of history.

While Dickey does encounter a few mysterious phenomena, this isn’t as supernaturally-tinged a work of nonfiction as, say, Alex Mar’s recent Witches of America. Instead, his goal is more to examine why we’re so drawn to ostensibly haunted places, and what makes tales of hauntings so relevant over the years, decades, and centuries.

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Futuristic Diseases, Futuristic Cures: On Science Fiction, Medicine, and Mortality

Science fiction allows readers and writers to experience an array of possible futures. In novels and short stories, authors have explored advances in topics as vast as technology, transportation, space exploration, and politics. Want to know what the existence of teleportation technology might do to questions of ethics and identity? Check out James Patrick Kelly’s “Think Like a Dinosaur.” Utopias and dystopias, for good and for ill of the people living under them, have been explored in countless works. But speculation about the future of medicine and disease enters into a trickier realm.

If you’re a writer exploring the nature of illness and healing in the future, from what angle can you best approach it? Some might choose to explore a world in which all disease is curable—and, perhaps, to focus in on an exception to that, and its effects on both the person afflicted and the wider society. Another might opt to focus on a specific treatment of a specific malady. And still others can use settings commonly associated with medicine for explorations of other science fictional themes.

[Katherine Mortenhoe, Sector General, The Child Garden, and more…]

Science Fiction, Literary Surrealism, and Latin American Fiction at the Brooklyn Book Festival

On Sunday, a trio of writers and one translator took to one of the many stages of the Brooklyn Book Festival for a wide-ranging conversation about genre, national literary traditions, and the long shadow cast by literary forebears and political movements. The panel’s title, From Sci-Fi to Meta (and Heavy Metal): New Dimensions in Latin American Fiction, suggested that just about everything was up for grabs, and the panelists did not disappoint.

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Panels and Gutters Rendered in Prose: Making Fictional Comics Work

Over the years, just about every form of media has been translated into prose. There have been novels and short stories written about composers, classical and jazz musicians, rock bands, films, plays, paintings, and sculpture. Some accurately and deftly channel the artistic discipline at their heart; others come up short, resorting to clichés or revealing a fundamental flaw in the author’s understanding of how the medium in question works. Novels that incorporate comic books into their plotlines are no different. At their best, they can make readers long for a creative work that never existed in the real world. When they’re less successful, they come off as discordant—the superhero or science fiction or fantasy narratives that they recount read like works that would never have been published in the real world.

In recent years, Michael Chabon’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay has set a high standard for other books to follow. In telling the story of two cousins who create a World War II-era superhero, Chabon was also able to touch on questions of religion, culture, inspiration, family, sexuality, and more. A key question for any fictional comic book is that of plausibility. Some writers opt to create thinly disguised analogues of iconic superheroes—and given that homages to the likes of Superman and Batman are already widespread in many a comic book continuity, this isn’t exactly an unheard-of narrative move. But it can also be problematic: if your fictional superhero seems like Wolverine or The Flash with a slightly different costume, the effect can be one of pastiche, diminishing the creative work done in the novel as a whole.

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The Historical Post-Apocalyptic

With all apologies to Pacific Rim’s Stacker Pentecost, sometimes the apocalypse doesn’t get canceled. Sometimes entire civilizations are upended; sometimes beloved homes and cities are destroyed, with entire ways of life and methods of interacting with the world shattered. But sometimes one person’s apocalypse is another person’s history–and in the hands of the right author, it can be as viscerally unnerving and cataclysmic as any story set in our own near future showing the end of the world as we conceive it.

Alternately: there’s a disquieting charge that one can get from reading a novel in which modern civilization is pushed to its limits and starts to fray. But even there, some of the same lessons about historical scope can be found. Consider the fact that David Mitchell has offered up two different visions of collapse, one in the very near future in The Bone Clocks, and one a few centuries further onwards in Cloud Atlas. For the characters watching the societal order and technological sophistication to which they’d become accustomed shift into a much more fragile existence, punctuated by the presence of violent warlords, it might look like the last days of humanity. But Cloud Atlas showcases a technologically thriving society existing on that same future timeline years later, and a more primitive society even further into the future. Not all apocalypses are global, and not all of them end the entire world.

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Five Visions of Post-Soviet Weirdness

There’s a particular strain of fantasy and science fiction that arises out of Russia that hits unexpected emotional and stylistic beats. Just like “Russian novel” has become shorthand for a kind of emotionally rich, intricately-plotted, doorstop-sized work of fiction, Russian novels that venture into more speculative and fantastical realms frequently do so in a particularly stylized, often cynical manner. Vivid imagery, fanatical devotion to obscure philosophies, and bleak endings abound.

The following five novels give a glimpse of the surreal side of post-Soviet life, often criticizing authoritarian tendencies, knee-jerk nationalism, and political maneuverings as they go. Their settings vary: some are set in a recognizable version of the former Soviet Union, while others venture into more fantastical realms. Together, they provide a skewed reflection of history and a distillation of regional and national anxieties.

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